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Which Nutrients Are Needed for Hydroponics?

Plants are autotrophs who make their own food from the sun through the process of photosynthesis. Just like us, plants also need nutrients to help them grow and develop. Plants usually get these other nutrients and minerals via absorption by their roots from the soil.

Nitrogen is one of the macronutrients that plants need. Nitrogen is super important for plants because it aids in cell growth and cell division which happens very quickly during the vegetative growth stage of your plants. 

A hydroponic system is a method of growing plants without the use of soil. Hydroponic systems use water and nutrient solutions to provide the plant with what it needs.  Since we are growing plants in the absence of soil, we need to account for many nutrients and minerals that plants may get if grown in an environment with soil.

Hydroponic systems are beneficial because they require less space, and less water, have higher plant yield and produce more fruits and vegetables. In soil farming practice, there are various methods that help plants get the macronutrients and micronutrients they need. Some of these practices include crop rotation and the use of fertilizers.

In hydroponics, the plants are grown in the absence of soil. Nutrients and minerals can be added to this water to help the hydroponic plants grow and develop. We keep saying that plants need nutrients to grow, but what nutrients are needed for hydroponics?

Nutrients Needed for Plant Growth

Plants require a variety of macronutrients and micronutrients for growth and development. Macronutrients are needed in large amounts by the plants, while micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts.

Plants get hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen from the water and air already available to them in your garden. The other macronutrients needed by plants for growth are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. 

Micronutrients such as iron, copper, boron, manganese, chlorine, molybdenum, nickel, and zinc are also needed in small amounts by plants for healthy plant growth. Plant nutrients are essential not only for the growth of the plant but also for other reasons such as the rate of photosynthesis and cellular respiration; enzyme activation; energy transfer; plant health and immunity; pollination; production of fruits and seeds; and chlorophyll production.

Plants typically get these nutrients from the soil. On farms where crops are grown and harvested, crop rotation and fertilizer help provide the plants with these nutrients. In natural soil, like in a forest biome, the nutrients in the soil come from many sources such as the breakdown of rocks; decay and decomposition of dead animals and plant material; and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

In your hydroponic system, your plants depend on you to add these nutrients into the water solution for them. Plants take in nutrients through the root hairs on their root tips via the process of diffusion. Molecules will move down their concentration gradient (from where there is more to where there is less). When adding the nutrient solutions to your water, there will be a higher concentration of nutrients in the water than in the growing plant. These nutrients will move into the plant via the root hairs and be transported throughout the plant by the xylem and phloem. This is why plants evolved growing roots to seek fresh sources of nutrients and water.

Root Systems are essential for how plants uptake nutrients in hydroponics
Figure 1: This image shows a picture of a plant root system. Root systems are composed of primary roots, lateral roots, and microscopic root hairs. The root hairs play an important role in the uptake of nutrients in your hydroponic system

Nutrients and water are transported throughout the plant via the plant tissues called the xylem and phloem. The phloem is a vascular tissue that transports organic nutrients. The xylem is a vascular tissue that transports water and mineral nutrients. Since we know how important nutrients are to plant growth,  the table below describes various macronutrients and their role in the growth of the plants in your hydroponic system. 

Table 1: Nutrient Roles in Plant Growth and Development 

Nutrient Use in Plant 
NitrogenNitrogen is an important macronutrient for plants because it aids in growth, the process of photosynthesis, and the dark green color of plants. Plants need an abundance of nitrogen which is why it is considered a macronutrient.
PhosphorusPhosphorus is another important macronutrient that plants need for the transfer of energy through the plant which aids in growth. Phosphorus also helps in the formation of roots and the production of seeds, fruit, and flowers. 
PotassiumPotassium is a macronutrient that helps plants develop disease resistance and overall plant health. Potassium also helps strengthen the stems of plants. Potassium is needed in active transport in plant cells and helps maintain osmotic balance. The opening and closing of stomata is an important adaption for gas exchange and water vapor exchange in plants. Potassium is part of the control mechanism that closes guard cells when the plant needs to maintain gases and water. 
CalciumCalcium is a macronutrient that is important in the formation and strengthening of cell walls. It helps with cell membrane function and enzyme activity. It also aids in the growth and development of roots and leaves. 
MagnesiumMagnesium is a macronutrient that is needed to make chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the pigment in plants that gives them their green color by reflecting green and yellow light. Chlorophyll is an important pigment in the process of photosynthesis because it absorbs light energy from the sun. Plants need chlorophyll to undergo the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis. Magnesium is also used by plants in the activation of enzymes.
Sulfur Sulfur is a macronutrient that is also essential for the production of chlorophyll. Sulfur also helps with the production of proteins and is needed for cellular respiration. 

Other micronutrients such as iron, copper, manganese, zinc, boron, nickel, molybdenum, and chlorine are also necessary for healthy plant development and growth.

Iron plays an important role in DNA synthesis in plants. Copper assists in the activation of enzymes which is important in many aspects of development and transport. Manganese and zinc help with cell processes and growth.

Boron is important for the development of fruits and seeds in your plants and plays an important role in pollination. Nickel and molybdenum help change nitrogen into usable forms for plant development. These micronutrients are needed in lower quantities by plants. 

Chlorine like many other micronutrients helps with chlorophyll formation and cellular development.

These nutrients can be added to your hydroponic system through the use of liquid or powder nutrients. 

Nutrients Needed for Hydroponics

The best part about setting up your hydroponic system is that you have control over the nutrients you mix with the water, so you can give your plants everything they need as they grow.  It is important to remember to add the proper amounts of macro and micronutrients. 

The addition of these essential nutrients mixed with your water will help you have a better quality harvest with higher yields. This is the result of growing healthier plants.   As you grow your plants in your hydroponic system, you will want to keep a close eye out for any deficiency in nutrients so that you can add the appropriate mixture to your plants.

 All of the macro and micronutrients listed above may be necessary for the plants in your hydroponic system. An N-P-K mixture contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This N-P-K mixture can be used in combination with calcium nitrate and magnesium sulfate as a starting point for the nutrients in your hydroponic system. 

It makes the most sense to start with the main macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The other nutrients to consider are calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iron, copper, manganese, zinc, boron, copper, and nickel. Your plants will obtain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from the water and air. Nutrients can be added directly to the water or the substrate in your hydroponic system.  

Adding nutrients to your water affects the pH of the water. It is best to start with water that has a pH of 7 because nutrients will reduce the pH of the solution. If you start with a pH of 7, the final pH of your hydroponic system should be around 5.8.

If the starting pH of the water is too high then the addition of nutrients will not reduce it enough. The pH of your water would then also have to be adjusted down to around 5.8. If the pH of your system is too high, the plants will not be able to take in the nutrients as effectively.  

Nutrient solutions and fertilizer amounts should be based on the age of the plant. Younger plants do not have long root systems which means they need fewer nutrients added to their water.

As the plant grows and its root systems develop, be sure to check your nutrient levels. Plants take these nutrients in via their roots and you may need to adjust nutrient levels as the plants grow. 

What Nutrient Solutions do I need? 

Now that we know how important nutrients are for plant growth, how do we know what nutrient solutions to use?  Various types of hydroponic nutrients solutions are available to help make your plants healthy.

We want to help you avoid nutrient deficiencies in your hydroponic garden.  You can choose to purchase liquid nutrients to add to your water or powder nutrients to dissolve in your water or add to the substrate. Some nutrients come in mixed formulas, ie: calcium nitrate. This type of nutrient adds two macronutrients, calcium and nitrogen, to your hydroponic system. The combination of these can help strengthen cell walls and produce better fruit.

As stated above you can start with an N-P-K solution mixed with calcium nitrate and magnesium sulfate. There are also specialized liquid nutrients that can assist in the absorption of micronutrients. There are so many possibilities, so where do you start? The products below will help get you started! 

If you grow your hydroponic plants in a greenhouse or warm climate check out  Bionova Silution Mono-silicic Acid. Mono-silicic acid helps plants grow strong, increases nutrient absorption, and helps plant immunity. Add it to your water and watch your plants grow strong. 

We also have the Bionova X-Cel Stimulator which is a powerful additive for your water because it contains substances like vitamins, amino acids, and elements to help plants and flowers grow.  Both are easy liquid nutrients to add to your hydroponics system and will help plants grow. 

Green House Feeding Mineral Line products can also help provide your hydroponics system with essential macronutrients, micronutrients, and minerals that your plants need. They contain all of the nutrients and minerals and necessary to mimic the growth of plants in soil, and in many cases maximize the genetic potential of the plant.

Green House Feeding products come in powder form which you can mix with water for your hydroponic solution or add to the substrate you choose. Following the directions on their customizable nutrient feed chart, you’ll notice the quantities of various products change week to week.

This is beneficial so that the levels of nutrients available to your plants gradually change as your plants grow and develop more intricate root systems.  These products are an excellent choice because the variety of the products we carry can provide the nutrients required for many types of plants. GHF nutrients are designed for all stages of growth. 

Summary

We want to help your hydroponic plants grow healthy and strong.  In this article, we went through macro-and micronutrients that your plants need to grow. What nutrients are needed for hydroponics?

Once you decide what you will be growing in your garden,  you can decide what types of nutrients are best. It makes the most sense to start with the main macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

The other nutrients to consider are calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iron, copper, manganese, zinc, boron, copper, and nickel. Your plants will obtain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from the water and air. Our variety of Green House Feeding and Bionova Silution products can help you get started! 

References

Plant Nutrition

Hydroponics Systems and Principles of Plant Nutrition

Plant Nutrition

Plant Nutrient Uptake

Published
Categorized as Nutrients

By Talissa Nahass

Talissa is a secondary science educator who loves teaching biology and environmental science. She has her B.S. in Biology/ Secondary Education and her M.A. in Educational Leadership. In her spare time, she enjoys doing science research and writing. She has a passion for hiking, running, and being outdoors. Every spring she grows various fruits and vegetables in her garden.

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